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How to choose a college course

It can be difficult to know what choices to put on your CAO. Here are some things to consider when applying for college.


Written by SpunOut | View this authors Twitter page and posted in education


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Filling out the CAO can be an exciting time, but it can also be confusing for many students, especially if you’re unsure about which courses you should put down. If you’re not sure what career you want or which subjects you’d be most interested in, then choosing a college course can become a daunting task.

If you are applying via CAO, remember the key dates for CAO applications, and find out if you are eligible for the student grant.

Here are some things to consider when it comes to choosing a course, as well as choosing the college to study at.

What should I consider when choosing a college course?

There are a few things to keep in mind while making a decision about what college course you want to do, including:

  • The subjects you’re currently studying for your leaving cert
  • Your key skills and interests
  • Your aptitudes (your natural ability to do certain things) - ask your school guidance counsellor about taking a Differential Aptitudes Test (D.A.T.) to find out
  • The points you expect to get - think about this at the beginning of sixth year, and review after your mock exams

What level course will you apply for?

Some people can get caught up in filling out Level 8 choices. When filling out the CAO, look into putting down QQI Level 6 and 7 courses, certificates, and diplomas too. It’s always a good idea to cover all of your options, and these courses are especially great for anyone who isn’t feeling ready to jump straight into university, but would prefer a more manageable entry into third level education.

Find out what a Post Leaving Certificate (PLC) course is like here.

How to choose the right college course

It’s okay if you’re not sure what course you want to do, many students feel the same way. Even those who do have an idea of what they want to do could benefit from looking at all of their options before making any final decisions.

Be open to all of your options

Whether you’ve known for a long time what you want to do in college, or you’re completely unsure, try to be open when it comes to choosing college courses. Avoid dismissing a course until you know more about it, and take time to consider subjects that you haven’t given much thought before. If you have your heart set on something, it’s still a good idea to look at what else is out there so you can be sure you’re making the right decision.

Think about your interests

If you really don’t know what to do in college, think about what interests you. Consider which subjects you enjoy the most in school, or maybe there’s a topic that comes up outside of school that you’ve always wanted to know more about. Studying in college is a lot more enjoyable if you’re truly interested in what you’re learning about, so take that into account when thinking about all of the possibilities.

Try creating a profile on CareersPortal.ie and take some skills or personality quizzes to help you find careers or courses that could be a match for you.

Do your research

After you’ve decided what sort of courses you might be interested in, it’s important that you do your research. Look up the course outlines at different colleges or on Qualifax.ie and take a look at what modules are on offer and what sort of work is involved. Many language courses require students to go on Erasmus for a year, while others might have a work experience or internship requirement. Knowing what to expect in advance can give you an idea of how much you’ll like the course.

It’s also important to know if there are any special requirements for applying, such as portfolios, interviews, or extra exams like HPAT or art and design courses, and when the deadlines for these are.

Think about life after college

One thing to consider is what you can do after your course ends. Many course descriptions will include a description on what sort of career you could have after the course, or what options for further study would be available. There might also be examples of what past students are doing now. This can help to give you an idea of the opportunities that could be available to you after college.

You can find some of these course descriptions and information on future opportunities on Qualifax.ie.

Try not to get too overwhelmed by the idea of what you might do after college. This is just to help you decide by asking whether or not these future opportunities sound exciting to you. Take everything one step at a time.

Aim high

Try not to choose courses based on how many points you need to get in. Instead, focus on what you’re most interested in, and work your way down. It’s better to fill out the entire CAO from 1-10 based on the courses you’re most interested in then to only put down courses you think you’ll get into based on the points. Points go up and down all the time, so it’s better to focus on what you want to do.

Choose something broad

If you have a few different interests and you’re not sure what to settle on, consider something broad that you could narrow down later. For example, many arts courses allow you to take up to three subjects in your first year, which can usually be narrowed down to one or two subjects in your second year. This gives you a chance to try a few different subjects and decide what’s best for you. There are also some science courses that allow you to take a broad approach and narrow it down later on.

If you get a few weeks into your course and realise you don't like it, speak to student services at your college about transferring into another course. This is usually possible if done before the end of October and the two courses are similar. If you want to switch later in the year, there may be fees involved. Click here to learn more about the possible fees attached when leaving college or switching into a new course.

Talk to someone about your options

Talking to a guidance counsellor, a teacher, a parent, or a friend can be a great way to weigh up the pros and cons of different courses. They might be able to suggest courses you haven’t thought of yet, or help you make a decision on whether or not something is right for you.

For professional advice you can either speak to your school guidance counsellor, seek career guidance from your local Education and Training Board, or contact a private guidance counsellor.

While it can be helpful to listen to the advice of others, remember that this is your choice in the end. Try not to feel pressured into choosing a certain course just because a parent or teacher thinks that’s what you should do. Choose something that truly interests you and that you want to study.

Consider alternatives

Remember that going to college is not your only option. Some students benefit from taking some time out before choosing a course, while others might find doing a PLC first helps them to decide what they want to do. College is not for everyone, and if you feel it’s not for you, try looking into an apprenticeship or going straight into employment instead.

How to decide where to go to college

Deciding on a course is one thing, but it’s also important to consider where you would like to study. Here are some things to think about:

Look into all of the colleges that offer your course

You might have found one particular college is offering a course you’re interested in, but there could be a number of other places where you can study the exact same course. Develop your awareness of your options by researching where the course is on offer, and try not limit yourself to just one.

UniBrowse.ie allows you to compare CAO courses on offer in different subject areas.

Think about accommodation and costs

One thing to consider is where you would live when you start college. Are you in a position to move out, or would you continue to live at home and commute to college each day? Learn about the different types of student accommodation and think about which option would suit you best.

You may also want to take cost into consideration. For example, living in a city like Dublin is likely to be more expensive than living in a smaller town or city. Try to get an idea of the cost of living and how you plan to cover those costs.

Learn more about the student grant here and look into different types of scholarships awards available.

Think about location

Location can be important in deciding where you’d like to live and study. Some people feel overwhelmed by living in a city and prefer to be part of a smaller community, while others would find a city more exciting. Think about what sort of environment you would like to live in, and find out which colleges would give you that experience. 

Remember also that studying abroad could be an option. If you want to study in the UK, you can apply through UCAS. Find out more about applying to UCAS here. Find information on applying to college in Europe here.

Look into clubs and societies

Campus life and social activities are just as important to college life as what you study. Take a look at what clubs and societies are in the different colleges and see if there’s something that would interest you that you’d like to be a part of. While it’s best not to base your decision solely on a club or society, it can be helpful when it comes to narrowing down options.

Go to open days

In order to get a real feel for the campus, go along to as many open days as you can. Not only is this a chance to get an idea of what it might be like to attend the college, you can also attend talks about the courses you’re interested in so you can find out more and ask questions. Use this as an opportunity to get all of the information you need.

Seek support, get as much information as you can before you make your decision, and remember there are always alternatives.

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Published Novem­ber 23rd2018
Tags APcontent education college
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